An American Profession of Arms

The Army Officer Corps, 1784-1861

William B. Skelton

Following the formation of a regular army in 1784, a popular distrust of military power and the generally unsettled nature of national administration kept the army in a continual state of fluctuation, both in terms of organization and size. Few officers were making a long-term commitment to military service.

But by 1860, a professional army career was becoming a way of life. In that year, 41.5 percent of officers had served 30 years, compared to only 2.6 percent in 1797.

“Skelton has successfully recast our understanding of the officer corps in antebellum America. Broadly conceived, thoroughly researched, and well written, his book gives depth and insight into the nineteenth-century effort to build a military establishment.

—American Historical Review

“Well organized, smoothly written, massively documented, and persuasively argued. It is safe to say the topic will not need the same sweeping treatment again in this generation and probably beyond.

—Reviews in American History
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Historians, while recognizing the emergence of a pre-Civil War professional army, have generally placed the solid foundation of military professionalism in the post-Civil War era. William Skelton maintains, however, that the early national and antebellum eras were crucial to the rise of the American profession of arms.

Although tiny by today's standards, the early officer corps nevertheless maintained strong institutional support and internal cohesion through a regular system of recruitment, professional training and education, and a high degree of leadership continuity. Through socialization and lengthening career commitments, officers came to share a common vision of their collective role with respect to warfare, foreign policy, Indian affairs, domestic politics, and civilian life.

The result, Skelton shows, was the formation of a distinctive military subculture rooted in tightly knit garrison communities across the frontier and along the seaboard, from which prominent Civil War leaders would emerge and whose essential character would persist well into the twentieth century.

About the Author

William B. Skelton is professor of history at the University of Wisconsin at Stevens Point.

Additional Titles in the Modern War Studies Series